Tag Archives: Underground Railroad

Voices of Liberation and Freedom: The Fall of Richmond, April 3rd, 1865

Richmond, the Confederate capital, entered by the Union army. nypl.org https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ff22-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

Today is the 153rd anniversary of the liberation of Richmond, Virginia, by Union forces during America’s Civil War, 1861-1865. The first soldiers to enter Richmond were the “colored” regiments of the Union Army, ranks formed of free and formerly enslaved African-Americans.

Our own ancestors were a part of this collective sacrifice and struggle for freedom, escaping slavery where they were held in bondage, and serving with the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 36th, and 37th Regiments of the United States Colored Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry, and as domestics, laundresses, and messengers in and around Union camps and hospitals. This post reflects just a few of the sites I’ve visited over the years that chronicle the long road to freedom.

 

Richmond, Virginia

The Lumpkin’s Jail Site and the African Burial Ground (ca. 1750-1816)

 

Copyright 2013 Nadia K. Orton

Lumpkin’s Jail Site, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend. Richmond, Virginia, April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

“Lumpkin’s Jail was owned by Robert Lumpkin, who maximized profits in his compound by including lodging for slave traders, a slave holding facility, an auction house, and a residence for his family. A port city with water, ground and rail connections, Richmond was linked to slave buying markets such as Charleston and New Orleans. Enslaved Africans referred to Lumpkin’s Jail as ‘the Devil’s Half Acre,’ reflecting the despair and anger of people separated forever from their families. However, Mary Lumpkin, a black woman who was Robert’s widow, boosted post-Civil War black education when, in 1867, she rented the complex to a Christian school, which evolved into Virginia Union University.” — Richmond Slave Trail historical wayside marker

 

Touring the African Burial Ground, April 6, 2013, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend, Richmond, Virginia. There were about 30 people in the group on that particular day, despite the cold. Tour led by Ana Edwards, Chair, Sacred Ground Reclamation Project.

 

“This Burial Ground for Negroes (ca. 1750-1816), reclaimed as Richmond’s African Burial Ground, is the oldest municipal cemetery for enslaved and free Blacks known to have existed in the Richmond area, and may be among the oldest in the entire country.

This is the final resting place for many of the Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in chains from West and Central Africa, as well as for people of African descent born in Virginia. While disrespected, exploited and terribly abused in their lifetimes, their forced, unpaid labor established an economic basis for the development not only of Richmond, Virginia, and the South, but also contributed to the United States as a whole. Because of Richmond’s central role in this country’s internal slave trade, descendants of those buried here can likely be found throughout North America…

This Burial Ground also was the site of the Town Gallows, where Virginia’s young freedom-fighting hero Gabriel of the nearby Prosser plantation was executed on Oct. 10, 1800, for his role in attempting to lead a mass rebellion against slavery. Courageously, Gabriel planned a coup against Virginia’s government. He established methodology from observing the American Revolution and the triumphs of enslaved Africans in Haiti. Gabriel and 25 other enslaved Africans were executed here or in three other locations after courts convicted them for their roles in the conspiracy. In 2007, Governor Timothy M. Kaine pardoned Gabriel, saying, ‘Gabriel’s cause – the end of slavery and furtherance of equality of all people – has prevailed in the light of history.’” – African Burial Ground historical wayside marker


 

Charleston, South Carolina

Denmark Vesey, Slave Rebellion Organizer 

Born ca. 1767-July 2, 1822

 

 

Denmark Vesey Statue Charleston SC Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Statue in honor of Denmark Vesey (ca. 1767-1822). Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. “Days of Grace” weekend, September 6, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton.

 

“Denmark Vesey, previously named Telemaque was born either in Africa or on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. At the age of 14, he was purchased by the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey and transported to the French Colony of St. Domingue, where the young African was sold along with 389 other slaves. Claimed to be suffering from epilepsy by his new owner, Denmark was returned to Captain Vesey.

The young man accompanied Captain Vesey on many trading voyages as part of the crew. In 1783, immediately after the American Revolution, Captain Vesey relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where Denmark continued to serve him for approximately another 17 years. In 1799, however, Denmark won $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery of Charleston and purchased his freedom for $600.

Denmark Vesey was a highly skilled carpenter and well known within free black and slave society. According to his contemporaries, he harbored frustration at his inability to legally free his wife and children. His antislavery sentiments may have received a wider audience when in 1818 enslaved and free black Charlestonians established a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church where he served as a class leader.

Vesey envisioned a community where all would be free, but recently passed state legislation of 1820 made legal emancipation of slaves nearly impossible. Furthermore, municipal authorities repeated attacks on the AME Church convinced Vesey slavery was such a violation of God’s law that rebellion was necessary to obtain liberty. He placed his own life at risk as he dared to plan to recruit others to achieve the goal of freedom.”

(Second panel)

Denmark Vesey

Vesey and his lieutenants “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, Peter Poyas, and Monday Gell developed a plan for a revolt which may have involved thousands of followers. Their war of liberation was originally planned for July 14, 1822, and called for conspirators to seize weapons and set fires around the city. Once reinforced by rural slaves, as many as possible were to escape by ship to Haiti where African people had already abolished slavery and formed an independent nation. According to Congregational minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the plan was the “most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves.”

When two slaves informed the authorities of the plot, the conspirators tried to move the date to June 16, but their plan failed. Arrests and trials followed and beginning on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day, Vesey and 34 of his compatriots were hanged. This figure represents the greatest number of slave conspiracy related executions in American history. 37 were banished, most outside the United States, and four whites were briefly fined and incarcerated for sympathizing with the conspirators. To strengthen security the authorities demolished the AME Church, and the state legislature imposed rigorous new laws, including the Negro Seaman Acts subjecting free black sailors from outside the state to arrest when their ships docked in Carolina ports. Free black men were required to have white guardians, and those that left the state were barred from returning. By the mid-1820s, the city fortified itself with an arsenal and barracks. In 1842, the Military College of South Carolina, now known as The Citadel, was established on that same site.

Despite daunting opposition, Vesey’s Sprit and liberating vision did not die. He became an inspiring symbol of freedom for later abolitionists including David Walker, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His resolve demonstrates the timeless universality of men and women’s desire for freedom and justice, irrespective of race, creed, condition, or color.”


 

Beaufort County, South Carolina

Grave of Robert Smalls, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery

 

Robert Smalls memorial Beaufort SC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Memorial to Robert Smalls, Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K Orton, December 13, 2014.

 

“Born a slave in Beaufort in 1839, Robert Smalls lived to serve as a Congressman of the United States. In 1862, he commandeered and delivered to Union forces the Confederate gunboat ‘Planter,’ on which he was a crewman. His career as a freeman included service as a delegate to the 1868 and 1895 State Constitutional Conventions, election to the S. C. House and Senate, and 9 years in Congress.” – Historical marker, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, South Carolina.

 


 

Harriet Ann Jacobs and the Maritime Underground Railroad

Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina

 

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

Maritime Underground Railroad wayside marker, Edenton, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 19, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Runaways depended on maritime blacks (African-Americans). During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seaman. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferryman, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready market for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens, and other potential collaborators.

It was this maritime culture that assisted Harriet Jacobs in her escape from Edenton by sea in 1842. In her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), Jacobs describes how the Edenton African American community, including black seaman, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.”  — Martime Underground Railroad historical wayside marker


 

Ohio

The Tiffin Tribune (Ohio), April 6, 1865

Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia

 

“Remarkable and Gratifying – The announcement that General Weitzel had captured Richmond has a peculiar interest for Cincinnatians, be-cause this gallant officer is a native of that city; but another feature of the event has a more general interest. His corps is composed of colored troops, and a large proportion of these were slaves, men who had es-caped from the lash and exchanged their shackles for muskets. The Confederacy proposed to found itself upon slavery. This institution was its chief cornerstone. Richmond was the center of the slave aristocracy, the heart of the rebellion. Now imagine the slave-drivers, with their garments gathered up about them, moving double-quick out at one side of the city, as their former slaves, with heads erect, guns in hand, and powder dry, marched in at the other, under the national emblem, to the music of the Union, and a picture is presented of humiliation and retribution on one hand, and triumph on the other, that is worthy of being transferred to canvas. The feelings of the chivalric men and high strung women on that occasion may be imagined; no pen could de-scribe them. It was a remarkable event, and one that will gratify the loyal people, and receive a special page in history.”

 

USCT Monument Petersburg National Battlefield VA Copyright Nadia Orton 2012

“In Memory of the Valorous Service of Regiments and Companies of the U. S. Colored Troops, Army of the James and Army of the Potomac, Siege of Petersburg, 1864-1865.” Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2012.

 


 

Richmond, Virginia

Garland H. White, Chaplain. 28th U. S. Colored Infantry

Letter, April 12, 1865

 

“I have just returned from the city of Richmond, my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I retired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out of the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.

We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. IN camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for [one] by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was brought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questions as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”

“My name is Garland H. White.”

“What was your mother’s name?”

“Nancy.”

“Where was you born?”

“In Hanover County, in this State.”

“Where was you sold from?”

“From this city.”

“What was the name of the man who bought you?”

“Robert Toombs.”

“Where did he live?”

“In the State of Georgia.”

“Where did you leave him?”

“At Washington.”

“Where did you go then?”

“To Canada.”

“Where do you live now?”

“In Ohio.”

“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnesses several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentleman of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think that they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted the order of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Calvary, colored, were still dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.”

 

Pvt Collins 5 Mass Cav Calvary Cemetery Norfolk Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Severn S. Collins, of Northampton County, Virginia, Company L, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton,  May 23, 2015.

 

(Garland H. White) “Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28 U. S. C. T. – better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers…

 

Sgt. Lewis Rogers USCT Portsmouth Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1845-1884) of Gates County, North Carolina, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015.

 

(Garland H. White) “Some people do not seem to know that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and I am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.”

 


 

Thomas Morris Chester

African-American Civil War Correspondent

 

“The white soldiers, when orders for advancing were passed along the line, were posted nearer Richmond than the negroes. But, with that prompt obe-dience to orders that has never made the discipline of the blacks the pride of their officers, they soon passed over their own and the rebel works, and took the Osborne road directly for the city. When within a few miles of the city I heard Gen. Kautz give the order to Gen. Draper to take the left-hand side of the road, that Devin’s division might pass by. Gen. Draper obeyed the order implicitly, and, in order that he might not be in the way with his brigade, put it upon a double-quick, and never stopped until it entered the limits of the city. The colored troops had orders not to pass through the city, but to go around it and man the inner fortifications. When Devin’s division came within the outskirts of the city, and marched by General Draper’s bri-gade, who had stacked their arms, and whose drum corps was playing na-tional airs, they were loudly cheered by the colored troops, and they failed to respond, either from exhaustion or a want of courtesy. To Gen. Draper belongs the credit of having the first organization enter the city, and none are better acquainted with this fact than the officers of the divi-sion who are claiming the undeserved honor. Gen. Draper’s brigade is composed of the 22nd, 36th, and 118th U. S. colored troops, the 36th being the first to enter Richmond.”

 

1st Sgt Firbee 36 USCI Elizabeth City Copyright 2013 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt Peter Firbee, of Currituck County, North Carolina, Co. A, 36th USCI. Oak Grove Cemetery, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2013.

Pvt. Jerome Morris, of Norfolk County, Virginia, Co. K. 36 USCI. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 10, 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Wilmington, North Carolina

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Company D, 37th U. S. Colored Infantry

Address before the J. C. Abbott Post, Grand Army of the Republic

Wilmington, North Carolina, 1884

 

“Why are over 50,000 colored soldiers laying beneath the sod to-day? Why are their bones bleaching in the dust to night? For the privileges we are enjoying to-day. Civil rights, political rights, soldiers’ and sailors’ rights, and religious rights; and we propose to protect those rights, let come what will or may. Let weal or woe, let us survive or perish, we will maintain those rights.” ♥

 

1st Sgt. J. S. W. Eagles Wilmington NC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Co. D, 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Wilmington National Cemetery, Wilmington, NC. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 18, 2014


Washington, District of Columbia

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

Celebrating its 20th year anniversary, July 18-21, 2018

African American Civil War Monument DC Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

African American Civil War Memorial. Washington, D. C. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 5, 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under Beaufort County, Brazos Santiago, Brunswick County, Canada, Charleston County, Chowan County, Cincinnati, Civil War, Craney Island, Currituck County, Denmark Vesey, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Fort Monroe, Gates County, Grand Army of the Republic, Haiti, Hampton, Hanover County, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, New Hanover County, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Northampton County, Ohio, Pasquotank County, Petersburg, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, South Carolina, Suffolk, Texas, U. S. Colored Troops, Underground Railroad, Virginia, Virginia Beach, Washington D.C., Wilmington

Delaware: Tracing family roots, past and present

African American Cemetery Delaware - Copyright 2017 Nadia K. Orton

African-American cemetery, Kent County, Delaware, August 19, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

In mid-August, we attended a family reunion in Wilmington, Delaware, for two of the paternal branches of our collective family tree, lines that extend to the 18th-century in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County (est. 1765), and City of Portsmouth (est. 1752), and to Warren County (est. 1779), in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

On the way to the reunion, and in keeping with the theme of “family,” we stopped at this peaceful spot, a well maintained cemetery in Kent County, Delaware. It’s located near the birthplace of Thomas Craig (ca. 1831-1896), a free person of color and Civil War Navy veteran who was included in my first blog a few years ago. (Thomas is buried near my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Max Jolly Orton, also a Navy veteran, and other ancestors in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia.)

Walking through the sacred ground, I reflected on Thomas Craig’s family history, and wondered if any of his relatives were laid to rest in the cemetery. In all probability, they’re not, as the family moved to several areas throughout Kent and New Castle counties after 1855, when Thomas left Delaware and moved to New York City to enlist in the Union Navy. Still, it was nice to be able to visit the region, and forge another tangible connection to history, a moment only made possible through the protection and preservation of the cemetery. ♥

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Chesapeake, Civil War, Delaware, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Stories in Stone, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia, Warren County, Wilmington

A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton

At the gravesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Chesapeake, Civil War, Durham County, Florida, Franklin County, Gates County, Georgia, Hertford County, Isle of Wight County, Maryland, New Hanover County, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Pasquotank County, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, South Carolina, Stories in Stone, Suffolk, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Vance County, Virginia, Warren County, Wilmington

Protected: Richmond, Virginia: Thoughts on Shockoe Bottom

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Enter your password to view comments.

Filed under Bertie County, Chesapeake, Civil War, Gates County, Hampton, Norfolk, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Richmond, Southampton County, Suffolk, Surry County, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia, Virginia Beach

Stories in Stone: Thomas Craig and the Ortons of Tidewater, Va. — My Mission as a Freedom Storyteller

Thomas Craig USN USS Franklin - Mt. Olive Cem

Thomas Craig Headstone – Mt. Olive Cemetery

Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city.

Mt. Calvary Cem Photo - 1960s

Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, 1964 – Library of Virginia

Due to almost two generations of family being unable to visit the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex between 1945 and 1993, the exact locations of our ancestors’ grave sites were unknown. Although necessary, walking the entire cemetery (several times) in the heat was almost unbearable, with the mosquitoes the size of small birds. There were hundreds of grave stones, each representing family legacies. Spotted were the Norcoms, Pontons, Riddicks, Bakers, Baileys, and many others, including Thomas Craig. Our forebears and the black community of Portsmouth once held the cemeteries as a sacred place, honoring their ancestors each Decoration Day, making them the end point of annual Memorial Day parade ceremonies. The New Journal and Guide wrote a story about one of these Portsmouth Memorial Day parades to Mt. Calvary in 1917. Our elders visited regularly for over sixty years. So as we walked through the cemeteries on that blistering day, I’d have to say we were propelled less by stubbornness (a family trait), and more with the goal of reestablishing this family and cultural tradition.

100_0201

Max J. and Jerusha C. Orton, 2007 – Mt. Olive Cemetery

With a little luck, we did eventually find five of our Portsmouth ancestors on that humid July 4th, scattered about different sections of the cemetery complex. One was Max Jolly Orton (1850-1902), my paternal third great-grandfather and Navy veteran. He’s buried in the rear of Mt. Olive Cemetery next to his second wife, Jerusha Copeland (1861-1928), who descends from a line of free persons of color out of Nansemond County (now Suffolk). His first wife, Jerusha Elliott (1850-1873), my third great-grandmother and also a descendant of free persons of color, is buried in the Pig Point (now Harbour View) area of Suffolk. I’ve yet to find her grave site.

The next stop on our genealogical journey was a trip over to Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (1912), before heading home. We didn’t have a map for Lincoln either, but were again lucky in finding an entire burial plot containing the grave sites of Virginius Young (1868-1928) and family, my paternal second great-grandfather, great grandparents, and other ancestors. It all seemed rather fated, as they were located just to the side of one of the main drives, ten feet from the entrance. Although Lincoln was generally in better condition than Mt. Calvary, we could still see evidence of a pattern of neglect suffered by black cemeteries in the area and nationwide. Cemeteries are institutions that anchor communities and memory. Lincoln Memorial and Mt. Calvary were two of the first such institutions that African-Americans in Portsmouth had formed after the Civil War. So many other buildings and structures that once bore the names of important figures in African-American history in Portsmouth have been torn down or had their names changed, making these cemeteries some of the last tangible sites to tell the tale of over two hundred years of their contributions to the City of Portsmouth. Yet there’s constant flooding, downed trees, trash, and irregular maintenance. Many gravestones are lost, vandalized, or sinking. The history and legacy that can be learned from these sites is on the verge of becoming lost forever.

Lincoln 2

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

At Lincoln Memorial, I thought again about Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive cemetery, sunken halfway into the ground, showing evidence of lawn mower damage. Why did I keep passing his grave site? I wondered. On a whim, we went back to Mt. Olive, and I cleared away the dirt from the area beneath his name. After all, I’d yet to encounter the Craig surname in my study of the cemetery to date, and thought it unusual for the area. Once clear, the inscription read “US Navy.” So, he was a 19th century navy veteran, like my third great-grandfather, Max Orton. “Craig”, I thought, “I wonder where he’s from? Did he serve on the same ship(s) as Max?” Both of their headstones were weathered to the same degree. Were they buried around the same time? Who was he?

Admittedly, I did not return to my query until recently. One aspect of my research involves the study of my ancestors’ and other African-American veterans’ contribution to their liberation in the Civil War, and the ongoing struggle for self-respect and dignity in their involvement in all other wars fought by the United States, including the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. I will make reference to the individual contributions of other ancestors in future writings. Here, I’d like to mention one of my forebears, Daniel Orton, a member of Company A, First Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Escaping slavery in the Sleepy Hole area of Suffolk, he’d made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, and enlisted on May 19, 1863. He lost his life at the age of only twenty-two on June 15, 1864, at the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. His sacrifice made me think of all the other men of African descent from Portsmouth that participated in every war since the American Revolution. I’d found out so many details about Max Orton, that he served in the Navy over twenty years until his death in 1902. He was of a small build, five foot one and one-half inches, and lived on Green Street and at 223 Fort Lane, which was just down the way from Cedar Grove Cemetery, and is now the current site of Harbor Point Behavioral Health. The area was once on the border of Lincolnsville, the historic African-American community that began around 1885, and was its own self-contained community until it was demolished in the 1960s, the first project of Portsmouth’s Urban Renewal Program. I’ll be writing more about Lincolnsville and my ancestors in the coming months.

223 Fort Lane 1960 Lincolnsville Assess picture

223 Fort Lane, Portsmouth – 1960

As I delved into research on Max Orton’s life in Portsmouth, my mind kept drifting back to his Navy counterpart, Thomas Craig. I’d passed his headstone so many times looking for Max’s grave site, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t for a reason. So, six years after I first found him, I decided to take a look into his life. What I would find out about Thomas Craig would lead me on a trail from Portsmouth to 19th century Delaware, a major center of abolitionism and Underground Railroad activity before and during the Civil War, to Union Navy recruitment in New York, to the South China Sea, with an ultimate return to Portsmouth and subsequent glimpse into its African-American community of the post-Civil War era.

Thomas Craig was born in 1831 in northeastern Delaware. Different accounts point to his birth in Wilmington, New Castle County, or Smyrna, Kent County. His parents, Noah and Sarah Craig, were free persons of color. Kent County was largely a more rural area, while Wilmington and New Castle County were more industrialized.

Delaware 1775 Map - Hundreds Del Genealogical Soc

Delaware “Hundreds” 1775 – Delaware State Archives

Compared to other slave states, such as Maryland and Virginia, Delaware had a rather high percentage of free African-Americans. By 1810, nearly 76% of the African-American population was free, compared to 23% in Maryland, and 7.2% in Virginia. By 1861, the percentage was over 92%. Delaware, as in other states of the country, saw a rise in abolitionist fervor after the Revolution, perhaps spurred by its idealism. This was in part due to a concentration of Quaker anti-slavery activity in the region. Gradual emancipation was preferable to large-scale anti-slavery efforts the State may have enacted. Delaware passed its first private manumission act in 1787, and individual acts of emancipation were the most successful part of this new movement.

A review of Federal Census records from 1830, 1840, and 1850 helped to place the members of Thomas Craig’s family in this period. In 1830, a Noah Craig is living in Appoquinimink Hundred (est. 1682), New Castle County, Delaware, head of a household of six free persons of color. In Delaware, a hundred is defined as a “sub-county division in England and were introduced in some of the British colonies. For Delaware, the origin is cited as a letter written in 1682 by William Penn, the newly appointed Lord Proprietor of the province of Pennsylvania and the counties on the Delaware. Penn directed that from this point onward, settlements be divided into sections of 100 families. The first use of the term Hundred in official records relating to the Delaware colony dates to 1687, when reference is made to ‘a list of taxables of north side of Duck Creek Hundred.’” (Source: Delaware State Archives)

Noah Craig is listed in the 1840 Census living in Brandywine Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware. He is noted as born between 1786 and 1804 (the census estimate), with two sons under the age of ten, a spouse, possibly Sarah, born between 1805 and 1816, and one additional female born between 1817 and 1830. One person in the household, most likely Noah, is listed as working in agriculture.

By 1850, Noah and Sarah Craig, ages fifty-nine and sixty-four, respectively, are documented in New Castle Hundred, New Castle County. Thomas Craig is listed in the 1850 Federal Census of Appoquinimink Hundred, New Castle County, age twenty-one, laborer, living on the farm of Robert M. Latimer.

Although Thomas Craig and his family were part of a thriving and progressive community of free African-Americans, white majority fears of this growing population were a direct result, and between 1800 through 1850, the Delaware State legislature passed laws curtailing the rights of free African-Americans in everything from the right to vote, to a law against being unemployed while poor. As seen in the recent film “12 Years a Slave,” free African-Americans were also at constant risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery down South.

USS Vermont after the Civil War. Navsource.org

USS Vermont after the Civil War. Navsource.org

Perhaps in response to these crippling and repressive measures, and in search of better economic opportunity, by 1855, Thomas Craig had left Delaware, and taken up residence in New York. Military records show he enlisted in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Vermont, and in doing so would join the ranks of the few hundred African-Americans serving in the Navy before 1861, a number that would soon swell to over 19,000 (with an additional 180,000 in the US Army) through the duration of the Civil War. The Vermont, a ship-of-the-line, was first laid down in 1818, one of nine, 74-gun warships authorized by Congress. Although she was completed by 1825, she remained essentially mothballed in the Boston Navy Yard until commissioned in late 1861. From 1862 to 1864, the USS Vermont was anchored in Port Royal, South Carolina, functioning primarily as a support, store, and hospital ship for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After two years, the USS Vermont returned to New York.

While aboard the USS Vermont from 1855 to 1864, Thomas Craig had served a total of nine years with a predominantly African-American crew, a common occurrence on supply and support vessels during the Civil War. Joseph P. Reidy, in his article “Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War,” notes that the “disproportionate presence of black sailors on supply ships” in many ways was a direct result of the “broader cultural biases that associated persons of African descent with menial labor and personal service.” Upon the Vermont’s return to New York, Thomas Craig transferred to and served aboard the USS Hartford in 1865, which became part of the Asiatic squadron formed after the Civil War.

Upon his discharge from the USS Hartford in 1868, Thomas Craig served aboard the storeship USS Guard, and the sloop USS Swatara. He arrived in the Tidewater area aboard the Swatara and transferred to the USS New Hampshire in 1869 after the Swatara was decommissioned.

Though not found on the 1870 Federal Census, military records place Thomas Craig as a resident of Portsmouth, Virginia by 1871.

Rev. John H. Offer, 1825-1902

Rev. John H. Offer, 1825-1902. Emanuel A.M.E. archives.

He would there join a growing, vibrant African-American community in the city, with recently elected city councilmen, newly established churches, businesses, and benevolent and fraternal organizations. On October 8, 1874, during his service on the USS New Hampshire, Thomas Craig married Mary Manger Butt, a widow from Brunswick County, Virginia, daughter of James Manger and Violet Rivers. According to the marriage certificate, the ceremony was performed “at nine o’clock at night in Portsmouth” by Reverend John H. Offer, a Baptist minister originally from Anne Arundel County, Maryland. A Civil War veteran, Rev. Offer was a member of Company H, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Reverend Offer served as Pastor of historic Emanuel A.M.E. on North Street from 1871-1877. In 2012, I had the great fortune of finding his and his wife’s headstones poking around a church graveyard on the Eastern Shore, at the conclusion of a great cemetery preservation seminar hosted by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR).

A large number of my ancestors were members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church since the 1840s, so I visited the church archives between 2010 and 2012 to learn more about them. There, I had the opportunity to talk with church historian Sara Choate Brown on numerous occasions. As in so many other cases in my research, talking with Mrs. Brown was an invaluable opportunity to learn from one of the elders in our community, griots and archivists that are often the last repositories of important history. In discussing Lincolnsville, she often spoke about remembering the days when Green Street “went all the way down.” I recall various ancestors that lived on Green Street in those days. My second great-grandmother, Adeline Vann Crowell (1888-1965) moved from Como, Hertford County, North Carolina to Portsmouth around 1900, and lived on Chestnut and Green Streets until her death. In the same area, another ancestor, Alfred Elmore Young (1896-1966), owned and operated a retail coal yard at 1700 Effingham, near the current location of the Portsmouth Fire Station. They are both buried in Lincoln Memorial cemetery.

Thomas Craig and family lived near the “way down” section of Green Street too. By 1875, city directories place the Craig family at the corner of Griffin and Green Streets, which is now the area bordered by Effingham Street, Bart Street, Court Street, Pavilion Drive, and Race Street, bisected by Interstate 264. The Sheriff and Co.’s Norfolk and Portsmouth City Directory for 1875-1876 listed Thomas Craig’s occupation as “mariner.”

Receiving Ship Franklin, 1914. Library of Congress

Receiving Ship Franklin, 1914. Library of Congress

Thomas Craig continued his service with the U.S. Navy, reenlisting and serving on the USS New Hampshire in 1875, the USS Worcester in 1876, and US Receiving Ship Franklin in 1877 through 1880. Throughout his career, he’d held the rank of “landsman,” given to new recruits, and “ordinary seaman,” a rank landsmen were usually promoted to after one year’s service. The lone exception was during his service aboard the USRS Franklin, when he was listed as a “jack o’ the dust.” An interesting sounding term, I learned the rank originates with the Royal Navy, and is defined as the “person in charge of breaking out provisions for the food service operation.” Nothing to do with cleaning, my first thought upon seeing the phrase. My third great-grandfather, Max Orton, also served aboard the USRS Franklin. A twenty-two year navy veteran, he first enlisted on October 27, 1880 at Norfolk, Va., and held the rank “jack o’ the dust.” I remember thinking “jack of the what?” the first time I read it while reviewing Max’s military records. Talk about six degrees of separation in genealogy. I suppose I can scratch that item off the family history to-do list!

In 1880, Thomas Craig was admitted to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, and diagnosed with Phthisis–pneumonica chronica, or pulmonary tuberculosis/chronic pneumonia. J. E. Gardner, P. A. Surgeon (physician’s assistant) at the Naval Hospital, noted that Thomas’ chronic illness was developed aboard the U. S. Receiving Ship Franklin, and being “exposed to the foul air and also to the dangers of overheating himself while attending to the water that was collected from the ‘exhaust’ steam which kept the hold hot and damp.” As a result of the diagnosis, Thomas was discharged from the Navy for medical reasons on June 30, 1880, after twenty-five years of service.

Due to his disability, Thomas filed for and began receiving his navy pension in 1881. Friends, neighbors, and fellow veterans, many of whom are also buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, were required to act as witnesses to validate his identity for the government before he could receive his pension. In the years that followed, he and his wife Mary continued to live at 1200 Green Street, with Thomas working off and on as a general laborer. Between 1888 and 1889, he worked as a lighterman, operating a small barge delivering and ferrying goods.

On February 1, 1896, Thomas Craig passed away. A copy of Thomas Craig’s death certificate was supplied by Portsmouth medical

Frank Stanley Hope

Frank Stanley Hope. Portsmouth Public Library.

officer Frank Stanley Hope (1855-1927), who is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Thomas Craig’s wife, Mary, was the informant. The certificate notes that Thomas was sixty-five years old at the time of his death, and his place of birth Wilmington, Delaware. His residence is listed as 1100 Green St. (an error), and burial in Mt. Olive Cemetery. The undertaker was George Colden, with business address of 629 Pearl Street, Portsmouth. George Colden (1843-1921), from Nansemond County (now Suffolk), was one of the primary undertakers for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

At this point, I wanted to discover more about the company that supplied Thomas’ headstone (and those of many other Civil War veterans) in Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. After a little research, I discovered that it was W. H. Gross, proprietor of Lee Marble Works (est. 1852), located in Lee, Massachusetts. Under contract with the U. S. Government, a section of a Department of the Interior Lime Belt Survey, published in 1923, reads:

“One of the products of the quarry is headstones for graves of soldiers in United States cemeteries. The epitaphs are cut in raised letters by attaching brass letters with roundish upper surfaces to the marble and exposing it to a sand blast long enough to remove the marble between the letters to a depth of a quarter of an inch. The sides of the letters are then sharpened with pneumatic hand tools.”

Lee Marble Works - Lee, Massachusetts

Lee Marble Works – Lee, Massachusetts (Wikipedia)

After Thomas Craig’s death, his widow, Mary, lived at 1307 Green Street with daughter Rebecca (by her first husband Stephen Drummond) and her daughter’s family: husband Enos Hodges, sons William, Owen, Charles, Elmore; and daughters Cornelia, Blanche, Minnie, Colestia, and Mary Louise. Mary Craig passed in 1910, and is also buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. I’ve yet to find her grave site, though it’s possible she rests alongside her husband in an unmarked grave.

Other interesting tidbits found amongst Mary Craig’s records are a few receipts from notable African American businesses in Portsmouth’s history, some of which I’d never seen before in years of research. When Mary Craig became ill in late 1909, she was attended by Joseph Jabez France, M.D. (1865-1926), a native of Accra, Ghana, and a highly regarded doctor in Portsmouth’s African American community. Dr. France’s office was located at 803 Glasgow Street. The Craig family also required the services of Dr. Eugene J. Bass (1866-1944), a pioneering businessman and druggist whose pharmacy was located on the corner of Green and London Streets. Dr. Joseph J. France and family are buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and Dr. Eugene J. Bass is buried in Lincoln Memorial cemetery.

Joseph J. France, Eugene J. Bass Advertisements. New Journal and Guide

Joseph J. France, Eugene J. Bass business receipts. Portsmouth, 1910

The information that one can discover from a headstone! What I’ve learned from the study of Thomas Craig’s life is amazing, and in a surprising way. I “met” him in a search for family and ancestry, in honoring the last wish of an elder. In a personal journey through history, I encountered a stranger, one whose story came to mirror the lives of some of my ancestors, with similar life experiences that were marked by racism, discrimination, hardship, struggle, and triumph. Their story is a Portsmouth story, an American story, part of our collective history, speaking to us from stones weathered by time. However, these stories in the stones may be lost. The cemeteries where they rest are threatened every day by the history of neglect, vandalism, flooding, overgrowth, and more recently, by gentrification and commercial development. Thomas Craig’s headstone, which taught me so much about his life, family, and 19th century African American life in Delaware, is sinking into the ground. Some of my ancestors’ gravestones have been vandalized. Thanks in part to these stones, and the cemeteries where they rest, I’ve been able to reconstruct a family legacy that spans over three hundred years. What other stories do the cemeteries contain? How much of our history remains to be rediscovered? As indicated on my website, I’ve visited many cemeteries in the last seven years, and continue to see the systemic blight of these important institutions that often matches the conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods. As the communities deteriorate or disappear because of the lack of jobs, resources, or the impact of commercial development, this fragile but important history may be lost to future generations. Genealogists and historians like me feel a sense of urgency to reclaim and preserve this history. These places matter, and merit our respect and protection. I hope to honor my ancestors and those of many others by working to place the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex on the National Register of Historic Places. In the coming months, I will continue to tell the stories of the many family legacies I find interred in these sites, following the trail illuminated by genealogical records, and incorporating the oral histories imparted by elders and members of the community. The ancestors are speaking, and I’m listening.

Sources

Reidy, Joseph P. “Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War. Prologue Magazine. 33.3 (2001). National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 15 Jan. 2014

Marriage records, Portsmouth Circuit Court, Portsmouth, Virginia.

U. S. City Directories, 1821-1989. Ancestry.com.

Dalleo Peter T. “The Growth of Delaware’s Antebellum Free African American Community. University of Delaware. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.

Knight Rebecca. “Hundreds In Delaware.” University of Delaware Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2014

Thomas Craig Pension File. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

U. S. Federal Census Records, Ancestry.com

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina, 1968. Print.

“Terms, Traditions and Customs of the Naval Service.” Bluejacket.com. Web. 8 Dec. 2013

Dale, T. Nelson. The Lime Belt of Massachusetts and Parts of Eastern New York and Western Connecticut. Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1923.

17 Comments

Filed under Delaware, Lincolnsville, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Stories in Stone, USCT Diaries, Virginia